Friday, March 9, 2007

An email exchange with a new friend, Hershey

These are emails between Hershey and me about non-realism. "Sofia" is the magazine of the Sea of Faith movement in Britain, which tries, among other things, to put non-realism into practice.

An email from Hershey, March 8th:

Peter, I am glad to have read your blog, because it gets me better acquainted with you. Now I would like to know how you came to be in touch with SoF. Since I am asking you that question, it is only fair for me to tell you how I found SoF. It began in the mid-1980s with the reading of two books: 1) John Hick, ed. The Myth of God Incarnate (Westminster Press, 1977). Hick not only edited the book, but he also wrote one chapter. Hick was an English Presbyterian, teaching at the Claremont Graduate School of Theology (Methodist seminary) when I first read him. One of the chapters in the book is by Don Cupitt. It impressed me so much, that I began reading more by Cupitt, especially Taking Leave of God (1980). 2) Marcus J. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision (Harper & Rowe, 1987). I found this book enlightening. I soon found out that Borg was a member of the Jesus Seminar, sponsored by the Westar Institute of Santa Rosa, CA; so I began attending semi-annual lectures (spring and fall) sponsored by the Institute, where I heard Borg speak. While attending one of the meetings I fell into conversation with a man from First UU Church of San Francisco, who was also a fan of Cupitt. In our discussion of Cupitt, he asked me whether I knew about The Sea of Faith. When I replied that I did not, he told me about it. I then joined. At that time one had to pay in pounds sterling sent to England. I found this cumbersome and expensive, so after a couple of years I volunteered to represent SoF in the U.S. and receive for the network payment in dollar amounts that they would set. They set this up, and I have been doing it for several years. If you don't know about the Jesus Seminar and its sponsor, the Westar Institute, go to for full information. Since learning about the Institute, I have been an associate member, receiving its bi-monthly journal, The Fourth R. It's excellent, and I commend it to you.

A response from me to Hershey, March 8th:

Hi Hershey,
Thanks very much for your very kind and informative email. I came to the Sea of Faith and to the Jesus Seminar via classes and retreats led by a wonderful pastor, Steve Wolfe, in the 1980s and 90s. Steve was from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, but since he was openly gay, LCMS had no use for him. He found a home at my parish, Saint Peter’s, in Manhattan, where there have been for many years out gay people. He was a “tent-making” pastor, making his living as a financial advisor in Greenwich, CT, and was a teacher and pastor when he wasn’t helping the rich get richer. He died a few years back, and all of us who knew him miss him.
Steve, although gay, wasn’t so much about being gay (at least as I experienced him), but rather he was deeply and passionately influenced by the historical-critical method and what that method could mean for our understanding of the Bible. We read Crossan, Borg, Elaine Pagels, the Gospel of Thomas, and much more. Along the way, I discovered Bishop Spong (I still find his newsletter helpful), and it was through him that I discovered Michael Goulder, Don Cupitt, the Jesus Seminar, and the Sea of Faith.
My thinking has been deeply influenced by Cupitt. I’ve read “Reforming Christianity,” “The Way to Happiness,” “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” “The Great Questions of Life,” and “The Old Creed and the New.” I’ve also read Nigel Leaves’s two books on Cupitt. I find “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” particularly helpful, and Leaves in his “The God Problem” put me on to Cupitt’s idea in “Radicals,” of the Church as the theater of feelings.
I think the way to religious experience is via our emotions and feelings. James Laird in his new book “Feelings” makes the point that feelings don’t cause behavior, but rather behavior brings about feelings. Darwin made much the same point in 1872 in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Darwin was always ahead of the curve by virtue of his careful observations. He is my idea of a great scientist. The arc of behavior to feelings jibes nicely with classic understandings of the liturgy. Behavior, e.g., worship, produces feelings. In “On Liturgical Theology,” Aidan Kavanagh points out that orthodoxy means first “right worship” and only secondarily doctrinal accuracy. This implies that worship conceived broadly is what gives rise to theological reflection rather than the other way around. In the phrasing of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390 - 465), it is the law of worship which founds or establishes the law of belief. Belief does not come first, then worship, but rather worship produces belief. Furthermore, worship and belief can be experienced in a “circular” manner.
In an upcoming blog post, I’m going to comment on the article in last Sunday’s “New York Times Magazine,” “Why Do We Believe?” And I think that the insights of Paul Ricoeur on the “hermeneutic circle” are particularly germane to understanding the insights of the article. Ricoeur writes in the “Symbolism of Evil,” “We must understand in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand.” “Never, in fact, does the interpreter get near to what his text says unless he lives in the aura (Ricoeur’s emphasis) of the meaning he inquiring after.”
Hershey, thanks again for your encouraging email. Would you permit me to post your email to me and my response on my blog? I hope that perhaps others would find them interesting.

An email from Hershey, March 8th:

Peter, I am enjoying our e-mail exchanges. Yes, you may quote as much of my posts to you as you wish. I have been reading Borg, Crossan, Pagels, Spong, and Leaves just as you have. I am surprised that you have not mentioned Lloyd Geering. He has become my favorite author in the area of theology and biblical interpretation. I am looking forward to reading his recently published autobiography. Of course I have enjoyed hearing him speak in Westar sponsored lectures. Other Westar lecturers whose books I admire are Karen Armstrong and Bob Miller.
Your writing of Darwin as "My idea of a great scientist" prompts me to comment that I recently read one man's estimate (I forget who) that Darwin was the greatest scientist who ever lived, surpassing even Newton and Einstein.Grace and peace,

A response from me to Hershey, March 9th:

Thanks for your email. I’ve just received the March issue of "Sofia," and I see that Cupitt has an article. I’m looking forward to reading it. I did read Michael Morton’s review of the “God Problem,” by Nigel Leaves in preparation to writing a letter to the editor based on the review. Earlier, I had submitted a paper to “Sofia” for possible publication. Although the editor, Dinah Livingstone, didn’t accept it, she did suggest that I present some of the ideas in my paper in a letter commenting on the review. In the paper, Paul Ricoeur’s post-critical naivete figured prominently, so the letter will discuss that. So, the letter is in the works.
I’ve read Lloyd Geering’s “Christianity without God,” but it didn’t resonate with me as Cupitt’s books do. I read Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God” and found it very helpful. For example, what is the relationship of the void that mystics speak of and Cupitt’s Void? I think there may be an essay in that juxtaposition. What do you think?
All I can say about Darwin is that he was amazing and his influence is ongoing. I was particularly fortunate to see twice the “Darwin” show at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The show documents the artifacts of his life to show his careful observation, his hypotheses, and their working out into the full-blown theory of evolution by natural selection.
I’m going to post this email exchange on my blog without your last name. I hope you will follow the blog and post comments in response to my musings. There are a number of new posts up, and I’d really like your input. You understand non-realism; that makes you a rare bird.

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